Rockets’ Man: How James Harden Burned out his Fuse with the Oklahoma City Thunder

The departure of Kimbo Slice doppelganger James Harden from Oklahoma City severely stunts the playoff hopes of the Thunder. In a league building towards superstar-laden rosters, the Thunder dealt a great player for average picks and average players. They traded out of contention because of the luxury tax, which makes it hard for small-market teams without lavish TV contracts or sugar daddies with deep pockets to retain talent. They traded out of contention because of an ill-fitting jigsaw of overlapping skill sets, and they traded because of ego, of Sam Presti, James Harden, or maybe both.

How could you deal a 23-year-old core player, drafted #3 overall, on the heels of an NBA Finals appearance? James Harden is an electric scorer who can catch and shoot (like most shooting guards in the NBA) but also can create his own shots (an elusive trait inherent to stardom.) Harden is quiet and humble, willing to check his ego and come off the bench. And, thanks to his inordinately hirsute face, Harden is both incredibly marketable and terrifying to children.

Posting this to show Harden and former running mate Durant in the spotlight, not because of Kate Upton. Definitely not because of Kate Upton.

But Harden’s liabilities are already vulnerable in Oklahoma City. The reason he watches the tipoff from the bench is due to his poor perimeter defense, ceding time to lock-down defender and awful offensive talent Thabo Sefalosha. It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if fellow stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were not also weak defenders. Each player has a parallel skill set, which yields a problematic symmetry where talents and flaws are equally amplified. All three players can’t handle one ball, and each possession only permits one shot to be created.

Could the Miami Heat have beaten OKC into submission? Did the 5 game Finals thrashing convince the Thunder to head back to the drawing board? Miami made it work without a true center and a rotating crop of token point guards who deferred on-ball duties to LeBron or Wade. Bill Simmons believes that the Heat eliminated both of those core NBA positions, creating a dexterous system where shooters space the floor from the corners while either of their stars can take over creative duties. OKC could have chosen to copy and implement Erik Spoelstra’s strategy, isolating all of their superstars and preying on the easiest defensive matchup. Instead, they traded out of their embarrassment of riches, choosing conventionality in a league experiencing sweeping change.

To his credit, Thunder GM Sam Presti has been successful rebuilding from the ground up. Besides the particularly heinous offense of spending a lottery pick on scrub Cole Aldrich (offloaded in this Rockets deal), Presti’s drafts have been successful. Westbrook, in particular, was a risky gambit that paid out handsomely. He only started one season at UCLA and scored less than 13 points per game, but Presti selected him 4th in the 2008 draft. He nabbed Serge Ibaka, nicknamed Serge Protector for his electric defense, with the 24th pick in the same year, Presti’s inaugural draft. Presti, who was hired at 31, isn’t afraid to take chances. He traded face of the franchise Ray Allen shortly after taking office, when the franchise was still in Seattle, and scored the draft rights to Jeff Green. Green was a solid contributor before being sent to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins, a player who hasn’t panned out for the Thunder, and with a yearly salary of almost $10 million, Perkins contributed to the cap conundrum that forced a move for Harden.

The bounty Presti scored for Harden includes veteran shooting guard Kevin Martin, a first round pick via the Raptors that projects near the late lottery area, a Lakers first rounder that should fall among the last few selections, a second rounder, and rookie shooting guard, rap auteur, and Scrawl so Hard favorite Jeremy Lamb. He parted with Harden and 3 negligible bench players. Martin is a prolific scorer but a poor defender. He may be most helpful for his expiring $13 million contract coming off the books after this season. His career has consisted of scoring buckets in droves while losing games. He’ll have to modify his game to become an off-the-ball shooter if he wants to play with Durant and Westbrook, but could generate scoring on the second unit. Lamb has a high floor and a high ceiling; he’s wiry and athletic, and is as likely to make the trade a gem for the Thunder as he is to self-destruct on the bench. He’s also not used to playing 5th banana, and many NBA scouts criticized his attitude and intelligence. The outcome of the picks will rest on Presti’s shoulders, but the NBA draft always produces busts. He’s mining for gold while playing Minesweeper.

This fascinating Grantland profile on Harden encapsulates his enigmatic personality; at times, he is selfless and stoic, a teenager who had to be convinced to shoot more and put the team on his back during high school. Other times, he is a “swaggering and smack-talking alpha dog,” going toe-to-toe verbally and on the court with the legendarily competitive Kobe Bryant. Harden was offered a 4 year contract for about $55 million to stay with the Thunder, but he rejected it. Is the alpha dog in Harden bearing its teeth, intent on being the primary conductor on a mission to orchestrate a winner? Unlike NBA royalty like the Miami trio and Tim Duncan, Harden was unwilling to take less to remain on a great team.

Disconcerting is the fact that the max deal Harden will get from the Rockets pays out $60 million over 4 years, only $5 million more than what he turned down from the Thunder. At such a negligible difference (percentage-wise, for an NBA player,) Harden’s departure suggests tension or frustration with being bottled up on the bench. Former players and current pundits Bruce Bowen and Jalen Rose believe Harden might regret eschewing a potential dynasty in favor of an increased role and salary. During negotiations, Presti laid out for Harden and his agent that he would be traded if he didn’t accept an extension. If it was really all about the money, the Thunder maintain they had no room to budge.

“We wanted to sign James to an extension,” said Presti, “but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved.”

Durant was surprisingly reserved. Both men have referred to each other as “brothers,” yet Durant tweeted a simple “Wow” before wishing luck to all four of the Thunder players traded.

“I actually talked to Kevin (Durant) last night,” Harden said. “He called me and he’s still in shock. Like I said, it happened so fast. I think he was at a football game when he found out and I think he said he stopped watching the game he was so upset.”

On Tuesday, Durant was so upset, he released a rap with Stephen Jackson.

Today, the Thunder roster is worse than before the trade. Potentially, Presti may be lauded for making the difficult move and improving the team in the long run. Harden could be heralded for moving on and carving out his own legacy in the eye of Linsanity. Whatever schism motivated Harden to depart, the exit from the talented Thunder core in a superstar-oriented league comes as a surprise to most fans. And it might have broken up the last challenger fighting in a valiant but fruitless stand against the heavy spenders in the major market. The hopes of a carefully crafted dynasty exit stage left and defect to Houston, while the Miami Heat return for a curtain call.


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